The newcomers were the subject of commentary throughout the region. Certainly, they were religious. But to what Order did they belong? Nobody knew. Some of the better informed claimed that they were disgruntled monks who, dissatisfied with their monastery, had decided to found a new house with different rules, and had settled there. They themselves were building the walls of their dwelling. They worked with ardour, interrupting their labour only for times of prayer.
These men stirred up the most diverse opinions in their regard. Some of the local people and religious authorities criticized them for their manners and customs, for the clothing they adopted, and for the austerity of their rules. It was said to be an excessively rigid discipline, a narrow-minded interpretation of the Faith, unsuitable for a changing world. Many thought the undertaking was doomed to failure.
On the other hand, there were those who admired the radical nature of the little community. Had not the Saviour said that the gate of salvation is narrow (cf. Mt 7:14) and that Heaven is won by those who do violence (cf. Mt 11:12)? Yes, some regarded the rigidity of the monks’ way of life not as a problem, but rather as the remedy for society and the Church.
In fact, the vast majority of people silently admired what they saw as heroism, virtue and holiness. They hesitated to applaud, because they felt challenged to imitate the example given, but lacked the necessary courage to follow the same path.
Who were these men who elicited such mixed reactions?
A group of monks led by intrepid men who, at the end of the 11th century, decided to carry out a revolt… a holy one! They founded the Cistercian Order, drew a multitude behind them and reinvigorated an historical era.
The crisis in the Church and the beginning of a holy rebellion
Throughout its two-thousand-year existence, the Church has passed through countless difficult moments. However, the crisis she faced around the year 1000 seemed to indicate that the Mystical Spouse of Christ – immortal by divine promise – was entering her death agony. Scandals and abuses multiplied everywhere, often caused by ecclesiastics and pastors unworthy of their office and negligent towards their sheep. The edifice of Catholicism was undermined in its very hierarchical structure.
Nevertheless, the Holy Spirit did not fail to engender holy souls in that period. Thus, the century following the crisis saw the flowering of various religious movements thirsting for a more perfect life. A wind of fervour and virtue swept through Europe.
These sentiments emboldened a Benedictine monk, who would become known to future generations as St. Robert of Molesme, to initiate a reform within his Order. His desire? Simply to return to the rigorous observance of the rule of the great Patriarch St. Benedict, whose spiritual sons, he clearly saw, were no longer living the ideal of holiness of the first hermits.
Robert’s aspiration roused a cry of defiance in monastic circles. And history would prove that it was, in fact, a holy rebellion that he and his followers instigated.
First attempt at Molesme
In 1075, Robert and seven companions took up their abode in Molesme, in Burgundy. Among these pioneers, one stood out for his holiness and ardour: Alberic.
Little is known about his life before he joined Robert. Cistercian tradition holds it as certain that he was a knight of noble origin, and the first historical documents of the Order merely describe him as a monk who was “learned, and versed in the divine and human sciences, who loved the rule and his brothers.”1 However, the traces of his strong and bold personality become evident in the history of the foundation of the Cistercians.
The goal of Robert and Alberic was not an easy one to achieve, for it was at odds with the religious ideal of the time. External criticism soon appeared, especially from ecclesiastics and other religious, perhaps because the austerity of the nascent Order troubled their conscience, or because both one and the other group had fallen out of favour with the faithful, who judged the reformers’ way of life to be more in conformity with the evangelical counsels. The comparison of the populace created discomfort, followed by envy, among the lax clerics.
The backlash of mediocrity
The first blow to the new foundation was an internal division. In a few years Molesme had developed and recruited new members, but not all adapted to the rigour of its customs.
The malcontents claimed that Robert’s reform was an unrealistic utopia and, taking advantage of a temporary absence of the abbot, attempted to soften the rule. They were opposed by a fervent core, led by Alberic, who was then prior. The debate became heated and soon turned into a physical struggle. The laxists won: they beat the prior and locked him in a cell.
When Robert returned, the faithful few understood that it was no longer possible to fulfil their dream in Molesme, for mediocrity had dominated the monastery.
Was the life which Alberic and his companions had undertaken very harsh? Yes, indeed it was and they knew it. However, the world had reached such extremes of sin that the presence of men who took virtue and sanctity to an extreme had become necessary. And the community of Molesme rejected this radicalism.
The Cistercians are born
Robert and Alberic, accompanied by twenty fervent monks, then left Molesme in search of a place where they could continue their “rebellion”.
They found it near Dijon, in the Saône valley, and settled there on March 21, 1098. The place was uninhabited and marshy, full of reeds, called cistels by medieval people. That is why the new abbey, which was painstakingly built by the religious, soon came to be known as Cîteaux, home of the Cistercians.
After living there for a year, Robert was ordered to return to Molesme by a papal legate. Alberic remained at the head of the Cistercians, with the mission of continuing the fervent revolt.
The Abbot of the White Monks
St. Alberic occupied the abbacy for ten years. It was a tremendous period in which a shortage of food and a scarcity of vocations shook the community. The trials, however, in no way shook his faith.
Insatiable for radicality, this “rebel” monk decided to change the habit. At that time, religious habits were universally black. However, Alberic decided that his religious should wear a habit of white wool, as it was an inferior fabric more in keeping with the rule of St. Benedict and with evangelical poverty.
The story is told that one night, while he and the other monks were praying together, the Mother of God appeared to them holding “in her hands a white and luminous mantle, which She placed over the head of the astonished abbot.”2
Thus the Cistercians’ snowy robes came to symbolize their life of perfection, and the people, in their admiration, began to call those austere men “White Monks”.
It was Alberic who also obtained pontifical protection for the Cistercian monastery and instituted the converse, or lay brothers, who, although living in the community, did not profess vows.
The first to invoke the Virgin as “Our Lady”
The Cistercian historical accounts have preserved few biographical details on him, but the Order’s tradition has maintained to this day his memorable Marian devotion: “Mary, Queen of Angels, was the light of the holy Abbot Alberic.”3
To him is attributed the custom of invoking Mary as “Lady”.4 In medieval piety, it was more customary for the faithful to refer to the Mother of God as “the Virgin”. Alberic, however, when preaching to his monks in the chapter, called her “my Lady”.
How often the community witnessed the abbot speak of Her as a child enchanted by his mother! That happy expression became common among the White Monks, and it was their custom to repeat: “The Lady of Alberic will help us!” And the Lady of Alberic soon became Our Lady of the Cistercians, and so today, on the lips of every afflicted soul, She is Our Lady.
The final and greatest trial
In the autumn of 1108, Alberic fell seriously ill and everything seemed to indicate that the holy rebellion had been in vain: the White Monks had caused admiration in their time, but had brought in few followers. The Cistercians were like a besieged city that was about to give in for lack of combatants. And Alberic knew it. Had the reform really been willed by God?
When Alberic closed his eyes to this life on January 26, 1109, he had certainly overcome his last and greatest trial: to believe that, despite all appearances to the contrary, his foundation would survive. This assurance did not come from facts – since the reality around him indicated the opposite – but from faith.
And the order flourished! St. Stephen Harding continued the Cistercian reform and a few years later, a brilliant young man, a fiery soul, joined the ranks of the White Monks: St. Bernard, accompanied by thirty-one noblemen, including a maternal uncle, four brothers and some cousins. Under the aegis of the great Abbot of Clairvaux, the Cistercian spirit – marked by a desire for radicalism – would spread throughout Europe. At the end of the 12th century, less than a hundred years after the death of St. Alberic, the Order had 343 monasteries. The holy rebellion had triumphed!
It seems no exaggeration to say that at the root of this fantastic success was a silent, sublime act of faith made by Alberic.
Rigid discipline imposed by the Gospel
The Cistercian reform intended to return to the strict observance of the rule of St. Benedict. But was there not something contrary to the sweetness and gentleness of the Gospel in this meticulous concern for rules, this attachment to ancient customs, this uncompromising asceticism and excessive discipline desired by St. Alberic and the White Monks? Did not Jesus Christ himself reproach the Pharisees, scrupulous observers of the Law and traditions, in this regard?
The comparison is inevitable; it jumps out at the eyes of contemporary Catholics.
Nevertheless, the radicality of St. Alberic is in complete conformity with the teaching of Our Lord Jesus Christ, who declared that He did not come to abolish the Law, but to bring it to its complete fulfilment (cf. Mt 5:17). The recriminations directed at the Pharisaic sect, who were considered radical, were due to their hypocrisy, because their members did not live what they taught, giving more importance to externalities than to the true practice of the Commandments.
In fact, the Messiah brought more rigorous precepts than those of the Mosaic Law, as seen, for example, in the discussion on the indissolubility of marriage and the practice of love of neighbour (cf. Mt 5:27-48). And the fulfilment of these precepts, based on the theological virtue of charity, requires an interior attitude which consequently finds expression in habits and ways of life, which since antiquity have often been considered by the world as exaggeration and fanaticism.
Yet St. Thomas Aquinas5 teaches that charity can grow to infinity. In this life, there are no limits to the love of God: one must always move towards the unattainable extreme.
The contemporary world indiscriminately condemns any form of radicalism, because it seems to see in it the origin of all conflicts, oppression and wars. However, it is precisely owing to the lack of men who unhesitatingly embrace evangelical radicalism that today’s society is so far adrift. ◊
1 ORIGINES CISTERCIENNES. Les plus anciens textes. Paris: Du Cerf, 1998, p.55-56.
2 BOLLANDUS, SJ, Ioannes. Acta Sanctorum. Ianuarii. Antuerpiæ: Ioannem Meursium, 1643, t.II, p.755.
3 GOBRY, Ivan. Les moines en Occident. Cîteaux. Paris: François-Xavier Guibert, 1998, t.V, p.28.
4 Cf. RAYMOND, OCSO, M. Tres monjes rebeldes. La saga de Citeaux. Barcelona: Herder, 1981, p.217.
5 Cf. ST. THOMAS AQUINAS. Summa Theologiæ. II-II, q.24, a.7.